The Italian painter Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510) was one of the major Renaissance artists in Florence, which was the center for innovative painting in fifteenth-century Europe.
Sandro Botticelli was born several generations after Donatello, Masaccio, and their associates gave Florentine art its essential direction and just before it took a great turn in the High Renaissance work of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and others. Botticelli worked in an established, almost traditional manner at a point just before the mode was generally perceived as no longer adequate.
Vagaries of Botticelli Criticism
A certain critical tradition has looked on Botticelli as a "decadent" artist, connected with the culture embodied in Lorenzo the Magnificent, de facto ruler of the city, poet, philosopher, and sophisticate. Successful in the 1470s and 1480s, then out of fashion and forgotten at the time of his death, Botticelli was greatly acclaimed in the 19th century, especially in England by the Pre-Raphaelites, who found that he legitimized their style, which combined the sensuous and the immaterial. Of late, scholars have considered this to be a misreading of Botticelli and have stressed his Florentine concern for solidly modeled form and religious exposition. Concurrently, however, admiration for his work has declined. Recent study has also tended to reject, as without contemporary support, the picture of him as first a member of Lorenzo's intellectual circle and later a devotee of the religious reformer Girolamo Savonarola.
Son of a tanner, trained by a master whose name is not known, Botticelli followed in his first works the current version of the Florentine style, the prime practitioner of which was Andrea del Verrocchio. This style was not much concerned with the convincing rendition of space and emphasized the human figure, with dense modeling, sharp contour, and linear rhythm. Botticelli's major early works are Fortitude (1470, one of seven Virtues for a merchants' assembly hall; the other six are by Piero Pollaiuolo), two tiny panels of the story of Judith and Holofernes, and St. Sebastian (1474). In some of these he altered the appearance of muscular energy and physical action found in Verrocchio's work in the direction of nervous fatigue and contemplative repose.
These qualities are most evident in Botticelli's best-known works, Spring and the Birth of Venus, executed for a cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, for his villa. They obviously reflect the contemporary literary culture, but their precise subject matter has been much debated and has never been agreed on; they were certainly designed in consultation with a scholar, but he may have invented an allegory for the occasion which was not recorded. Since Venus has a central position in both works, it is plausible to consider the two figures of Venus as a contrasting pair. There was a literary convention in philosophical-archeological writing of the time of contrasting the spiritual and the earthly Venus, which may well be a factor in the paintings, though not the entire theme.
Botticelli continued using this early style after 1480 (the Birth is perhaps as late as 1485), but meantime a new style emerged in frescoes such as St. Augustine (1480) in the Church of the Ognissanti, Florence; the Annunciation (1481) for S. Martino, Florence; and three frescoes (1481-1482) in the Sistine Chapel, Rome, executed during Botticelli's only trip away from Florence. These frescoes show a new concern with the construction of stagelike spaces and stiffer figures, also seen in a series of altarpieces of 1485 and 1489. A bow to the newly fashionable work of Domenico Ghirlandaio and of Flemish painting is implied, but the tense linearity of the figure reveals that Botticelli's art had not undergone any fundamental changes.
After 1490 Botticelli began to concentrate on paintings with many small figures, using the same cutting contour lines, so that the entire picture surface acquired a trembling vibrancy. Many works exhibited this new tendency, such as the Calumny of Apelles, a visualization of a description of a painting by an ancient Roman writer; the Crucifixion, with a rain of arrows descending on a view of Florence in the background, the only work by Botticelli definitely expounding Savonarola's view of the sinning city; the Last Communion of St. Jerome, the most intense of several works portraying physical collapse of the body; and the Nativity, (1501), which employed an archaic design of Fra Angelico, with a stylized cave suggesting pre-Renaissance landscapes, and an inscription referring to current prophecies of the end of the world.
In his late years Botticelli was crippled and failed to receive commissions, but he may have continued to work on his set of drawings (never finished) illustrating Dante's Divine Comedy, remarkable for their consistent evocation of an energized irrational space. By about 1504, when the young Raphael came to Florence to observe the new modes of Leonardo and Michelangelo, Botticelli's art must have seemed obsolete, although it had been widely imitated in the 1490s.
Further Reading on Sandro Botticelli
Herbert P. Horne, Alessandro Filipepi, Commonly Called Sandro Botticelli, Painter of Florence (1908), is a classic of biographical reconstruction. Lionello Venturi, Botticelli (1937), provides critical analysis. Botticelli is placed in the context of contemporary intellectual movements in Giulio Argan, Botticelli: Biographical and Critical Study (trans. 1957). Roberto Salvini, All the Paintings of Botticelli (trans., 4 vols., 1965), is up to date and reliable.